What is Fear? And Is Fear of Death Really a “Fear”?

Session Date: 
Mar 3, 2017

Fear is generally considered a response to an immediately present threat. As a result, when scientists study fear they measure the way the brain detects and responds to threats.  These responses are viewed as proxies for the conscious feelings of fear.  But are they?  In humans so-called “fear” responses can occur without awareness of the stimulus and without any feeling of “fear.”  Further, in humans, different brain circuits underlie the conscious feeling of fear and the behavioral and physiological responses that also occur. This means that fear responses should not be viewed as reliable measures of circuits that give rise to of fearful feelings.   This conclusion has profound implications how we think about, do research on, and treat problems related to fear, and its partner, anxiety. The question of fear of death has to be evaluated in light of these considerations.  In addition, the question of whether fear of death is actually a fear, or more a worry, that is an anxiety, needs to be addressed. Just as fear occurs when a threat is present, anxiety is the result of an uncertain threat in the future.  Fear of death, except for one on their deathbed, should probably be viewed as death anxiety.

File 2017_03_03_06_LeDoux-Web.mp485.5 MB